By Philip L. Tite
The shocking death of Robin Williams this past Monday has sparked a flurry of tributes, reflections, and, of course, outpourings of grief by admirers. For myself, his death recalled my recent use of clips from Mork & Mindy in my humor and religion course at the University of Washington this past Spring. Although I had grown up with this show – and loved it as a kid (and still do as an adult) – I had never noticed the strong religious elements woven throughout the show. During the Fall of 2013, I re-watched all four seasons, working through the episodes in order. I was overwhelmed by the strong religious themes in much of the humor. Besides the political humor that was so prominent in the series, religion was perhaps the most enduring of topics. Indeed, Mork’s first encounter with Mindy is a misunderstanding with a religious twist, where he is taken as a harmless priest (due to wearing his suit backwards) and, only when she sees the “front” of the suit on Mork’s “back” does the religious motif give way to the “crazy guy in my apartment” shock.
One of the recurring religious topics in the series, however, is that of “cults”. One of the main support characters, Exidor, is presented as a self-proclaimed religious prophet – in effect, a charismatic “cult” leader. The “new religion” that Exidor launches varies in his first two appearances in 1978; first, he establishes a UFO cult (“Friends of Venus”) and then a sports cult revolving around O.J. Simpson and American football. Both of these appearances occur in the first season. (There is also a fourth season episode that addresses cults; “Alienation” , where Mork and Mindy’s child, Mearth, is seduced by a cult and the parents have to sneak into the cult center and retrieve their son. This later episode nicely reflects aspects of the Cult Awareness movement that flourished in the 1980s onwards.)
The first clip is from the episode “Mork Runs Away”. In this episode, Mork feels that he’s interfering with Mindy’s dating life, that his very presence is making her unhappy. He runs away and thereby meets Exidor. At the end of the episode, the two main characters, Mork and Mindy, are reconciled. Here is the relevant clip:
In the second clip we find Mork in jail for allowing a criminal to escape from the police. While in prison, Mork once again runs into Exidor, who has lost his faith in the Venusians and has now found his truth faith: O. J. Simpson. This is a wonderful nod to “sports as religion”:
The narrative structure of both encounters between Mork and Exidor are identical:
1) a meeting between the two characters;
2) presentation of the “cult”;
3) Mork’s initial attempt to understand the cult;
4) Mork’s parody of religion through an exaggerated adherence along with Exidor’s declaration that Mork is “a true believer”;
5) Mork’s undermining the religious foundations of the cult; and
6) Exidor’s rejection of Mork.
Each scene follows this tightly woven narrative progression, driving home the illegitimacy of the cult (and thus, perhaps, of “religion” or at least of religion that would have been viewed pejoratively as a “cult” in the late 1970s/early 1980s). Both scenes present motifs that reflect the “cult scare” of the day along with the attendant negative stereotypes attached to the label “cult”.
Indeed, the polemical utilization of the term “cult” as a “normative” description for New Religious Movements (NRMs), as James Richardson succinctly and effectively demonstrates, was largely reinforced by the media’s popularization of cult as pejorative. Richardson, quoting Robbins and Anthony, presents the following popular definition of cult:
… certain manipulative and authoritarian groups which allegedly employ mind control and pose a threat to mental health are universally labeled cults. These groups are usually: (1) authoritarian in their leadership; (2) communal and totalistic in their organization; (3) aggressive in their proselytizing; (4) systematic in their programs of indoctrination; (5) relatively new and unfamiliar in the United States; and (6) middle class in their clientele. (Richardson, “Definitions of Cult: From Sociological-Technical to Popular-Negative,” in Cults in Context: Reading in the Study of New Religious Movements, edited by Lorne L. Dawson [Toronto: Canadian Scholar’s Press, 1996], 33)
The two cults founded by Exidor fit most of these elements. Exidor is the authoritarian founding figure who is mentally unbalanced (note the imaginary people! – later in the series, he even has an imaginary dog that Mearth plays with). There is (in Exidor’s mind at least) a closely knit group bent on proselytizing (and in the first clip, Mork parodies evangelical preachers to emphasize – and poke fun at – this aspect of the cult). The belief content of each cult is odd and unusual within the American context (at least American culture as implied in the two scenes), though both are relatable to an American audience. Finally, while on earth Mork’s socio-economic context is that of the middle class. The parody motif in both scenes certainly renders each cult something to laugh at.
More recently, Joe Laycock has offered an excellent analysis of media presentations of NRMs as “cults” (see Joseph Laycock, “Where Do They Get These Ideas? Changing Ideas of Cults in the Mirror of Popular Culture,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 81.1 : 80-106). By looking at how NRMs are portrayed in film and television, Laycock elucidates three rhetorical mechanisms by which “popular media has particularly served to reinforce public narratives about NRMS” (84).
The first mechanism is medicalization (“defining deviant behavior as a medical problem or illness”; 84). In these two Mork & Mindy episodes, this mechanism is clearly the quintessential character trait of Exidor. The guy is off his rocker. His lack of connection to reality is exemplified by his entourage of imaginary people, along with his eccentric physical behavior and prophetic clothing. The second mechanism is deviance amplification, where the media emphasizes the violent, criminal, or dangerous aspects of a new religious group so as to suggest that this example is only the “tip of the ice-berg” (thus the danger of a cult is extended to all or other NRMs, so that the “moral panic” over cults is amplified). The third mechanism, convergence, is not dissimilar to the second though it is distinct. Here the presentation of one characteristic of a cult (e.g., a charismatic leader) evokes and applies other characteristics to the NRM even when those other characteristics are not present (e.g., brainwashing or suicide).
Fictional presentations of NRMs are particularly salient, as they often conflate a range of stereotypical characteristics of cults. With our two scenes, we find the charismatic leader, the UFO motif, mental imbalances, anti-social (possibly criminal in the prison scene?) attitudes/actions, and apocalyptic escapism. With the later episode where Mearth is seduced by a cult group, brainwashing and financial exploitation along with physical danger are evoked. Added to these “typical cult motifs”, we find parodies of so-called mainstream (American) Christian religion (e.g., Mork’s evangelical preacher persona and the parody of gospel songs and prayer).
So what do we do with this data? So far we have been discussing the what question of religious cult discourse in Mork & Mindy (the substantive content of the narratives). But what about the question: to what end? How is such discourse used? Laycock suggests that such media discourse can result in reinforcing the dangerous nature of NRMs or that they can counter public portrayals of NRMs as dangerous cults.
The two examples I’ve looked at in this blog post seem to do both. Recall the narrative structure of each scene, specifically the closing elements. After rising to a climax of complete adherence to the NRM, Mork undermines the very foundations of Exidor’s religion: the Venusians don’t have the technology to destroy the Earth and O.J. Simpson is a just a man and football is just a game. Each religion is judged to be false (and perhaps by extension all religions are false, if indeed a secularization value underlies the treatment of religion in Mork & Mindy; but this extended evaluation may not hold true for all treatments of religion in the show). The break between the two characters reinforces the rejection of Exidor’s religion; i.e., while Exidor falls into a stubborn and sullen adherence to his delusional religious beliefs, Mork is reintegrated into the normal world of the show [reconciliation with Mindy and release from prison when the criminal he released does return as promised]). Thus, NRMs (and perhaps religion more generally) is characterized negatively. Such a negative portrayal certainly would fit the dominant public discourse over emergent religions in the United States when these episodes aired in 1978. This negative portrayal is certainly reinforced by the 1981 episode with Mearth.
There is a more positive side to these episodes, however. As Laycock also has demonstrated in his study of parody religions (Joseph Laycock, “Laughing Matters: ‘Parody Religions’ and the Command to Compare,” Bulletin for the Study of Religion 42.3 : 19-26), the humorous presentation of a religion – specifically through an act of parody – will often serve to challenge certain hegemonic privileges or assumptions enjoyed by particular religious groups. When we look at these two scenes from Mork & Mindy, we are immediately hit with the humor. This is clearly a comedy show and the audience is expected to laugh at the jokes. But notice that the joke in these two instances is that of religious parody. By juxtaposing various elements – both elements attached to “cults” and elements attached to “mainstream” religion and culture – the audience is left laughing at the ridiculousness of religion, specifically the silliness of the stereotypes attached to NRMs.
Often to laugh at something that is perceived as threatening is to discursively move from apprehension to a calmness where the feared object is no longer viewed as dangerous (rather, it is rendered silly). This discursive use of religious humor seems to underlie the humor in the Canadian comedy series, Little Mosque on the Prairie, in light of 9/11 and the War on Terror (I am indebted to Amir Hussain for introducing me to Little Mosque as well as this appreciation of the function of humor in, especially, the first season).
Recognizing such a use of parody (i.e., parody redirecting public discourse) requires situating the parody within the broader historical, cultural, and political context within which the parody is utilized. In the case of Little Mosque, the context is undoubtedly the aftermath of 9/11 for many North Americans. In the case of Mork & Mindy, it is worth noting that the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s (when the show aired) was a period where anti-cult fears hit a high point in especially the United States (but also Canada and the UK). By articulating a parody of such cults via Exidor’s religious innovations (and by rendering Exidor a loveable, eccentric recurring character), the show both reinforces and counters such anti-cult discourse. Perhaps it is this very tension that gives the humor an enduring resonance with viewers.
In this post, I have attempted to explore one of many religious elements in Mork & Mindy. This exploration in part builds on ideas kicked around with my students back in the Spring. It is also meant as a small tribute to Robin Williams, a loveable and thoughtful person who has had a huge impact on many of us as we grew up. Throughout his career, Williams used humor and laughter to challenge viewers to seriously reflect on the condition of humanity (and perhaps to be a little more humane in our treatment of others). In his early work as the delightful alien from Ork, we find just such a social message presented. How religion – and in particular NRMs – plays into such a discourse, is a bit ambiguous. These scenes seem to push in both directions laid out above, yet without an overt contradiction I leave it to my readers to struggle with this ambiguity.
On a personal note, I am saddened by Robin Williams’s death. It is a horrible loss. A beautiful voice has fallen silent. As a scholar, I am even more fascinated by his legacy and how that legacy has helped shaped public discourse over religion.
Philip Tite is editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. He holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from McGill University (2005) and is currently an Affiliate Lecturer at the University of Washington and Lecturer of religious studies at Seattle University in Seattle WA, USA. His most recent book is The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans: An Epistolarly and Rhetorical Analysis (TENT, 7; Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2012).